An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Book Review: A Disaffection by James Kelman

There are a number of ways to write a book review but by and large I stick to the simple, selfish formula: I write reviews in a straightforward way that I would like to read. I like to read reviews that allow me to make up my own mind about whether what's reviewed is for me or not. Mostly that suits me: I have no axe to grind - I'm just telling the reader what I thought of a book.

This time though I have an axe - I really want you to read this book - I want to share it with you - this is a great book, not just a good book but a great book. This book demonstrates what the new novel can be - should be. Kelman is a true successor to Joyce and Beckett: he is the British Sorrentino but whereas it is difficult to find Sorrentino's influence flowing through American literature Kelman's legacy is set already with writers like Agnes Owens, Roddy Doyle and Irving Welsh.

I could bore you with a list of writers who influenced Kelman directly or indirectly but that would be pointless, simply accept that Kelman did not arrive at his style from nowhere, a broad wealth of British experimentation with the novel preceded his breakthrough.  

Kelman uses dialect (Glaswegian) and vernacular throughout his prose and not just in the dialogue which is possibly difficult for anybody who has never heard a Scots accent but for those who have it is a simple matter to read tricky bits out loud to understand. HIs eye and his ear are nearly 20/20 and pitch perfect and, although there is little in the way of plot there is such a wealth of insight and nuance that one sometimes has to consciously draw breath and take pause to digest.

He has one ploy that I particularly enjoy and that is to have his protagonist form and partly answer a question (usually about himself or his trajectory) and then leave the reader to complete the response for himself or herself - in this way Kelman draws the reader into the very soul of the protagonist and by the end of this wonderful novel you have a very good understanding of the very  nature of disaffection.

Kelman is very good and this is a fine example of the modern novel - I urge you to read it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lies, damned lies and, fundamental market conditions

Does anybody recall the fuss a few months back when oil prices were going up - up and up? Eventually the $100 per barrel barrier was breached and all this while the economic pundits were denying that the cause for this astronomic stupidity was occasioned by a glut of mad equity investors plunging into commodities. The news programmes were stuffed with economic experts happily telling us that the rises were inevitable given market fundamentals - that the whole thing was the fault of those middle easy potentates not producing enough of the stuff - or that is was the slanty eyed creeps in China using it all up in their rush toward affluence.

Well here we are some months later and oil dropped below $50 dollars a barrel today. So somehow either the supply and demand equation magically balanced itself out or those "experts" were telling us porkies. What do you think?

Monday, November 10, 2008

I'm sorry - I just don't understand this

We've been living here full time for 6 years now and for ten years on and off before that and we've come to terms with a great number of cultural differences but some things still shock me.

I'm constantly explaining the very different types of relationship that older generation Greeks have with their domestic animals to the north European model that we are familiar with. Ours is an overly anthropomorphic. sentimental one whereas the prevailing model here is a more distanced, pragmatic, utilitarian one. I understand both and can fins things to praise and condemn in both positions of the spectrum. 

Notwithstanding that analytical understanding and acceptance of difference I was stunned and dismayed to find the corpse of a fully grown (obviously well nurtured) adult Dobermann dog casually discarded next to the bins at the end of our road today.

This I do not understand. 

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The future is NOT in eggs

I have an allergic eczema outbreak and part of the treatment involves limiting my diet_ Pinned to the fridge is a list of when and how much medication is due but there is another list - a list of foods I must abstain from for the next 20 days:

eggs - not a problem - I hate eggs - they are disgusting and make me retch, even the smell of them - mayonnaise though that's a different matter

fish & seafood - ho hum - fish is expensive and not a great love of mine - no great loss

cheese - oh dear - I love cheese - this is really stressful - cheese sandwiches, parmesan and peccorino on pasta - this is a trial

nuts - it is currently chestnut and wet walnut season - this one is painful - and no cashews either - roll on the end of this restriction

carrots - this one is easy I ain't bugs bunny and in casseroles one can always substitute leeks which are much tastier though less colourful

chocolate - chocolate in summer here is so unappetising but now that winter is on it's way the odd Mars bar every day is good but I can wait - now if there were Topics in the fridge this would be a nightmare

banana - my least favourite fruit after oranges and oranges are not the only fruit

strawberries - I love these with champagne but as we have no champagne and strawberries are out of season this is a breeze

apples - no great loss - I prefer pears

pork and pork products - ouch - this one hurts - bacon? no bacon? no ham - no xirino me selino - like I said - ouch

no preservatives or colourings - luckily most of our food is fresh and not processed so apart from prolonging the lifespan of the OK sauce we got in London this is no big deal

I can do this

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Friday, November 07, 2008

Mute in the presence of beauty

The sky was split in two east west when the girls caught up with me having a smoke and so ominous was the east that Gill checked that she had an umbrella with her. We smoked and talked and began to anticipate the Rothko over at Tate Modern. Lindz was all excitement - she had never seen Rothko save in books though she was acutely aware of my love for his work - she has been sending me Rothko calendars for many a year. But when I tried, in my artistically illiterate way, to explain to her that one does not see Rothko works so much as experience Rothko's work she was nonplussed. It's to do with size and power and emotion and pure physicaity of colour ... I trailed off. I become mute in the presence .... anyway, you'll experience it yourself soon enough. OK, let's go - we'll take the river boat I think.

As we walked the embankment Gill and I recalled the amazing evocation of it that Eva Figes manages (The Tree of Knowledge is it or Nelly's Version - maybe a reader here will clear it up for me - maybe it's neither). It seems my memory of this place is more closely linked now to literature than to the multitude of actual, physical experiences of the place itself. Is that to do with the effect of time or the power of the word? A chill swept along the river with the tide and brought us back to London proper and to Lindz.

As we waited for the river boat a chill of apprehension came over me at the very idea of being with Rothko again. I had, for several years before leaving the UK, used the Rothko room (Tate Modern's permanent exhibition of some of the Seagram Murals) as a place to meditate and think up new ideas (it was only a 77 bus ride away) but had even after that regular exposure still never been able to enter the room without gasping. And to think - Rothko was always worried about his legacy!

I missed the Houses of Parliament but when the Eye and the whole South Bank complex came into view memories came flooding with the tide and in no time at all we were mooring in front of the old Bankside Power Station - a place we had spent Sundays in summer long before it became Tate Modern. And off we trooped a trois, picking our way through happy familes and bemused foreign sight seers.

We eschewed the first entrance, choosing instead to enter directly into the massive and massively impressive Turbine Hall and Lindz trooped off to pick up our tickets (Lindz was picking up all the tabs today - sweetie!). I was gathering myself. Up the escalator - and there it was. We took the leaflet proffered by a young man in sports clothing who was ushering us all through the entrance. I hung back, averting my eyes from the first room and checking the leaflet - 9 rooms - the black on blacks that I've never experienced, the brown and greys, ditto, and even the black on grays - wow!. And then it happened - my peripheral vision had picked up the first room and locked in on it - I was caught and was being reeled in. My heart slowed, a lump formed in my throat and without any notice I found myself crying - floods - and suddenly I found myself standing in awe and wonder in room 3 where the Seagram Murals - 15 of them? 14? it's impossible to count and who really cares - surrounded by this amazing hanging I am shattered - I am gasping and trying to control both my tears and my breathing. Gill is beside me - she anticipated this. This is joy. Pure and simple joy. Lindz is shocked, people are looking at me and frankly I just don't care - in the presence I am autistic - incapable of communication - mute and wordless - the work speaks to me - I have no need for speech - I have nothing sensible to say.

From there on it was dumb man walking. Hyper-attentive and over-stimulated I took it all in - every room a revelation and an immersion, seeing and hearing nobody - taking it all in - a pair of eyes and a mind.

Really - I have no words.

THE REAL THING - ish - better still go to the exhibition if you can - you may never get another chance

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Bacon - no sausages - no eggs

We hurried on down a side street and cut through the grounds of Lindz's old college - beautifully restored now and a haven of light and peace and eventually we came out at the new entrance to Tate Britain - an entrance we had never seen before. We had, apparently, an 11 o'clock slot and guessed that we might have time for a coffee before tackling the dark master of 20th century British art. Lindz ran off in her sweet pigeon toed way to pick up our tickets and Gill and I sought out the new cafeteria to pre-order.

And so we chattered on for half an hour - catching up and simply enjoying the company - until Lindz checked her watch and urged us forward to the entrance. We were a little late for our slot but the uniformed guardian handed us each a 10 page boklet and then swept us inward with minimal hand gesture and a nod. I heaved a sigh of relief - it was not too crowded. There were knots of people lingering close by some of the better known works in the first room but it was not, thankfully, heaving with humanity.

The exhibition was arranged through ten rooms (don't worry - I'll not take you by the hand room by room) and promised some early works that I had never seen before and some later works ditto and there, in the first room, were a couple of early works that I had never seen even in books. Five lavender haired old ladies were huddled in front of an early sketch of what has become known as the Screaming Pope. The ladies were of strictly limited stature and I peered over their heads taking in the purple and the gold, the blacks and the gaping hole where the mouth should be. I have always disputed the screaming part of that famous soubriquet and this sketch was remarkable in that it was absolute confirmation for me that this Pope was not only not screaming (he was shouting) but that he wasn't, ironically, a Pope (a cannily disguised Ian Paisley looked out of that dark background and howled vicious empty rhetoric at me). The likeness has faded by the time Bacon got to the much better know triptychs but the evidence here nailed the lie once and for all - what a cruel and humorous man Bacon was. And the power, the disapproval and the anger, come off that sketch more effectively more eloquently than in the later workings of the topic. This exhibition promised much from this first impression.

In that first room. packed closely with many of his earliest works I could feel the power of Bacon brewing - his style took years to develop but the power was there from those earliest days:

a figure on a park bench - a figure without a head but with a menace painted with pity and insight;

a magnificent painting of a dog chasing its own tail (Bacon is magical with dogs, capturing the immanent tension and movement with a few brushstrokes) and;

finally an eerily pale, almost fading depiction of that tragic, crouching figure with the swanlike neck and the head that is little more than an upturned open mouth full of teeth that would crop up again and again in later years, an image that haunts you forever once seen - or even glimpsed.

And so it went on with room following room of powerful images that speak powerfully - some of them shouting - some of them Beckettian in their bleakness. As the rooms flow on the years pass for Bacon and the technique becomes more studied and the foreground image is layered more and more heavily (in some paintings one wonders seriously whether Bacon could have got more paint to stick) as he constrains his figures in mystical cages. The power turns up steadily until the effect on the viewer is physical.

Tired, emotionally and physically, we entered the penultimate room in disarray having been treated to unexpected (and wonderful) paintings of a man with a bicycle, another stunning dogs- this time in a gutter with his owner invisible from the waist up, and a water spout beautifully forceful and dramatically captured, to be confronted with the magnificent triptychs of George Dyer in death and after. This room has Bacon at full emotional throttle - a master filled with pathos, and insight - a painter grappling with the reality of loss and pointlessness. Here, in this one room one is confronted with the awesome ability of one human being to communicate the unsayable. Confronted with such honesty strength we lingered as long as was decent until we wandered out exhausted into the final room.

Here was the late Bacon - Bacon turned old - Bacon unmanned - Bacon fading. The power had passed from him. To me it seemed sad. Here was Bacon producing copies of Bacon - and poor imitations at that. It was instructive - it reminded me of opera singers who continue long after their instrument has lost its tone and range - instructive and tragic.. I left the girls in that room and wished I hadn't seen it.

Tomorrow - a river boat ride and Rothko ...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's Tuesday so it must be the Tates

A cold bright Tuesday roused me gently from a night of fitful sleep - a sneaking wakener pushing its penetrating sheet of light under and round the edges of the blinds. Almost Austrian this light, Alpine maybe, Tyrolean even, how apt - not the quality of light I associate with London.

I checked the watch beside me - it was seven fifteen - and settled back into the lush warmth of the swansdown pillows. A two stop day this one - or three if you count the exhibitions separately - and a long anticipated day. The day with Lindz and the evening with Anna and Alex. Culture in the day and decadence in the evening - a superbly well balanced day in prospect but first things first - a shit, a shave, and a shower were all needed - and an early exit. Scratching I headed to the shower room.

As we stepped out into the morning that had, until now, hidden behind the windows the cutting cold sliced into us. It was dry but it was bracing. Bracing or bloody cold depending on how well wrapped one was. For us it was bracing - uncommonly so to a couple accustomed to Cretan winters. We picked up the pace as we headed toward the tube and its promise of insulation. Cold, bright and dry it was but loury clouds had begun to gather in the east - they would lower until dusk had long fallen but their gathering would haunt the day.

We shrugged our way through throngs of men and women of all ages and races all waiting for buses - some of them clutching young children to them - half term - as we hurried up to the tube station and forced ourselves into its maw through the Oyster card gateways. Vertiginous escalators eased us into the artificial atmosphere down there by the platforms where trains rushed in and out beyond us - not waiting our arrival - pushing gusts of warm, moist, dirty, air past us and up into the booking hall.

Arm in arm, we were coming to the fag end of the big commute, we stumbled from the moving stairway - a lack of practice, I guess, could explain the stumble. Heads up despite the dust storms we searched out the familiar and world famous London Underground signage and turned right to the southbound platform - Waterloo and the meeting clock were where we would meet up with Lindz. Amber digital signs announced our train due in one minute and sure enough a gust of filthy fetid air preceded, preannounced its arrival and presaged black bogies yet to come.

We arrived at Waterloo and burrowed our way up to ground level - the tube always makes me think of purblind moles, grey, furry, and covered in dirt - via tunnels and escalators to emerge almost opposite the renowned clock - ten minutes before ten. There was no sign of Lindz though and so I left Gill and went outside for a smoke - her habit is less demanding than my own. Big signs forbad me from the direct pavement and forced me across a road busy with taxis to a knot of like minded deviants hard by a collection of skips and builders' rubbish to huddle against the cold. Some caught short late reveller has last night left his dinner and his urine in the lea of a red lead painted skip. What a way to treat people! Odd how rigorous puritanism produces such gross results. Sated temporarily I picked my careful way through a steady stream of taxi bound latecomers and passed, on the way, a grisly, mean little sign that offered me the bargain of a lifetime - only 20 pence to take a piss! No wonder now at the reveller's relief post.

Gill and Lindz had done their helloes by the time I joined them and after hugs and kisses we headed off a trois leaving the lost and expectant masses neath the clock to their personal rendezvous. Passing the 20 pence pissoirs I realised that were heading out toward Tate Modern and stopped us all. What's first up Lindz? The Bacon. But isn't that at Tate Britain? Is it? Surely not? Lindz punched up some numbers on her mobile and confirmed my guess so we all turned 180 degrees and burrowed back down into the underworld.We were now headed for Pimlico and the Francis Bacon retrospective.

We emerged into brilliant sunshine and an eastern sky more loury than ever. Above the strangely familiar skyline over the Thames a black bank of cloud hung heavy - a sky like this I had not seen since we stood, Gill and I, on the Charles Bridge in Prague squinting up at baroque gilded statues offset against a midnight blue sky.